Karen Freeman-Wilson followed an unconventional path to the mayor’s office. She’s been a city judge, the Indiana attorney general and the CEO of a national nonprofit representing drug courts. “In hindsight,” she says, “I can say I took that circuitous route so that I would be as prepared as I could be for this challenge.”
Since being elected mayor of Gary in 2011 -- the city’s first female leader -- Freeman-Wilson has focused on reviving her struggling Rust Belt city, which has less than half the population it had in 1960. She started by cataloging Gary’s empty buildings. “The consensus was that in most neighborhoods, vacant and abandoned structures were a real problem,” she says. “But coming in, no one really knew how many.”
The city systematically documented each structure and began demolishing the ones that were dangerous or in poor condition.
Freeman-Wilson’s also pushing economic development. The city of 80,000 has fewer than 20 restaurants, one hotel and no movie theaters. “We have to increase the number of amenities—that’s the only way people might move in,” she says. “The good thing is, we have laid out plans that will allow us to do just that.”